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Monday, 13 September 2010

Frume Sarah isn’t big on change. Which can be difficult for a rabbi in the Reform (aka Progressive) movement. Sometimes the resistance to change is completely irrational. Which is also problematic in a movement that prides itself on a rational approach to religion. After all, my alma-mater is a direct descendant of the “Hochshule.”

But remember…they don’t call me Frume Sarah for nothing.

It may surprise you that when it comes to gender and gender roles, I am pretty much a traditionalist. Present vocational choice excluded. The term avot indicates ancestors. I’m good with the “L word.” And it truly does not bother me that men thank God for not having made them female. [Though I personally think it makes more sense for both women AND men to thank God for being made according to Divine Will — another post for another day.]

Women bentch licht. Men say kiddush. It isn’t that a man can’t light candles or that a woman can’t say the blessing of santification over the wine. The mitzvah of lighting the Shabbat candles, according to Maimonides, falls to both men and women (Hilchot Shabbat 5:1), though it is primarily the obligation of the woman (Hilchot Shabbat 5:3). Thus, if no Jewess is available come the astronomical sunset on a Friday, the man is obligated to light the candles.

That’s how it’s been. And that’s how it shall be.

Or so we said.

It isn’t that it was exactly forbidden. It’s just that no man had ever requested to light the candles at the start of Kabbalat Shabbat. It simply has not been our minhag.

Until a couple of months ago, when a member of our congregation wondered whether he could light the candles. And then we had to make a decision.

I am bound to disclose that I was one hundred percent, completely opposed to the notion. For no reason other than a purely emotional response. After all, the Reform movement counts women towards a minyan, ordains women, allows them to be called to Torah, act as witnesses, etc. In other words, women are given full access to all areas of ritual life. How, then, could we suddenly prevent someone from participating in a ritual based on gender? So I recognize that my feelings were irrational. I was permitted to voice my opinion, as all staff members have always been free to express thoughts, ideas, etc. And then…I was overruled. Because, in the end, I am not the senior rabbi. There is one senior…and it is not me. The pulpit and its rituals, ultimately, rest in his hands.

This was still hypothetical, however, as no male had been scheduled to light candles.

And then…there we were on Shabbat Shuvah. With no one assigned for the honours. Why, you ask? Because — and I hate to admit this — folks just aren’t up for yet another service after spending so much time in shul during these Days of Awe. Between me and the lampost, I do find it fascinating that the folks who attend Shabbat Shuvah by us are the ones who tend to attend most, if not all, of the services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The ones who complain about not being able to spend “one minute more” at synagogue are the ones who typically put in an hour, maybe two, and then cut out early. [Also a post for another time.]

The next thing I know, two folks (a man and a woman) are up on the bimah, lighting candles. She read the English, he lit the candles, and recited the bracha in beautiful,flawless Hebrew. With the most kavanah I have heard over candles in a long, long time.

And as I whispered the Shehechiyanu into the ears of the candle blessers, I silently thanked God for removing the stumbling block from before me.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Shellie Halprin permalink
    Monday, 13 September 2010 11:16 pm

    Did you happen to notice that there’s an ad posted on your blog by “Ads by Google” for Jews for Jesus? A bit ironic!

    I love your posts. They reveal such a real side of you. I’ve had so many moments like the one you described where my initial reaction was emotional, based perhaps on the way things had always been done. Sometimes getting overruled opens up a lot of perspective.

    FYI…when we gather for Shabbat or Yom Tov, I may begin the baracha, but the entire family joins in, particularly my dad who often sings and prays louder than most. It sure doesn’t seem wrong to have us all join in prayer together.

    See you for Kol Nidre…one of my favorite parts of HHD.


    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 14 September 2010 9:42 pm

      thanks, Shel. One of the things I enjoy about working with our staff is the process of arriving at decisions. We often spend important time just debating and discussing our different points-of-view.

      And I agree…I love Kol Nidrei.

  2. Cindi Maggied Gellert permalink
    Tuesday, 14 September 2010 6:28 am

    Lovely post. When I read these, I can hear your voice speaking, which is something to say since I haven’t seen you in 15 years. 2 things: When J and I met, he wanted to light candles, simple as that. I knew there was no Halachic reason for “no” – but I wanted the tradition of my doing candles, he doing Kiddush. Then, we adopted the “virtual twins”, a boy and a girl. Whatever one does, the other does too. Since they were “lighting candles” from the 9/10 months old that we had them home, they both have always lit candles. (we held their hands with the LONG matches). I often wonder what will happen as they grow older. Will that sweet son of mine still want to light? Thanks as always for spice in your posts.

    • Tuesday, 14 September 2010 6:41 am

      Cindi – when you said “virtual twins” I thought you meant that like virtual reality, like you had imaginary twins. I had to read through your reply three times before it occurred to me that you were talking about real people. Ah, the vagaries of the written word!

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Tuesday, 14 September 2010 9:51 pm

        PG — you are funny. It would have been really strange if Cindi had a virtual reality with twins who both lit Shabbat candles.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 14 September 2010 9:50 pm

      Fifteen years…wow.

      Anyway, Halacha is a funny thing. Even when Jewish Law permits something, minhag sometimes prevails.

      In our home, my mother, my daughter, and I are the primary candles blessers. The fellows are there and now I’ll have to pay better attention and see who is saying what. I think my boys sometimes also bless, but if they are in another room, that is OK too. They always come running back for their blessings before we continue with kiddush.

  3. Tuesday, 14 September 2010 9:03 pm

    One of the many things I admire about you is your honesty and “realness.” You aren’t afraid to speak your truth and stand by it, no matter what other people many say/think. What makes this such a wonderful post is the honest description of your feelings about the issue at hand – and the equally honest way you describe how G-d removed “the stumbling block” from before you. By sharing your experience you teach me how to become a better person. Thank you.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 14 September 2010 10:05 pm

      And I thank you for your kind words. They are especially supportive during a time filled with much shtuss.

  4. Wednesday, 15 September 2010 8:15 pm

    Beautiful. Just beautiful.

  5. Wednesday, 15 September 2010 11:53 pm

    Though I personally think it makes more sense for both women AND men to thank God for being made according to Divine Will — another post for another day.

    I once wrote bout this:

  6. Thursday, 16 September 2010 5:59 am

    Regarding the morning brachot….. I had the honor of visiting the rare book room at JTS where I was shown a siddur from the 14th century that was penned for a shmancy woman, and it says “shesani eesha v’lo eesh” (for making me a woman and not a man) and as the proud woman I am, I have taken to saying that 😉

  7. Thursday, 16 September 2010 6:07 pm

    Isn’t there a tradition that sometimes the minchag will become the halacha? I seem to recall learning that somewhere, though I can’t recall where.

  8. Shoshi permalink
    Sunday, 8 January 2012 4:44 pm

    That experience must be a taste of what it’s like for all the men faced with questions of women’s participation. It must somehow seem viscerally wrong to them and they have no “senior rabbi” to overrule them. 🙂

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